BOOK REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

BOOK REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine ArdenTitle: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published by Del Rey
Published: January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 322
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is a superbly magical fairy tale inspired by Russian folklore. The story is lyrical and engaging, and even though I’m not a reader who is familiar with Russian fairy tales and folklore, so much of it seems both familiar and strange that I felt like this story has both been part of that fairy tale lexicon of sorts and wholly new all at the same time. I love it when a writer weaves together the old and the new to make a new effortless-feeling tale that lingers in the mind long after the book ends.

Vasya, the main character, is lively and complicated, as fairy tale heroines often tend to be. Arden’s villains are nuanced and complex, making you think that perhaps villainy is only a construct of our perspectives rather than a factual thing. The atmosphere feels like a chilly Russian wilderness, and its distant enough in time and distance to be all the more enchanting.

And, like many traditional, “original,” fairy tales, The Bear and the Nightingale is beautiful and terrifying in a very Neil Gaiman-esque sort of way, and I love the sort of terror that sneaks up on you and faces you full-on, making you come to terms with the terror of your own reality in contrast to this fairy tale one.

If you are a fan of Erin Morgenstern and Neil Gaiman and enjoy reading terrifically beautiful fairy tales, this is one you need to add to your TBRs immediately!

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House/Ballantine for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

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BOOK REVIEW: Vicious, by V.E. SchwabTitle: Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Published by Tor
Published: September 24th 2013
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 364
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

I feel like I rarely give out five-star reviews, but I think V.E. Schwab’s Vicious earned it by the end. It started out a bit slow for me (but that might also be attributed to a little reading slump), but once I hit the halfway mark, I was hooked and couldn’t put the book down. Vicious grapples with the superhero ideas of good and evil, hero and villain, and what results from all of the chaos each of two main characters create.

Eli Ever is the self-regenerating, self-proclaimed hero after discovering the secret behind the creation of EXtraOrdinary people, often called EOs throughout the book. After his best friend Victor Vale becomes an EO, accidentally murder’s Eli’s girlfriend, and goes to prison, Eli makes it his mission to remove other EOs from the population.

The book alternates between the present day with Eli being the ‘hero’ and the past with the beginning of Eli and Victor’s struggle to the present with Eli trying to take control over the EO population and Victor’s escape from prison to get to Eli. The alternating chapters threw me off at first, but then it fell into a really interesting rhythm, as if each chapter set in the past connected with each chapter in the present.

One of the things I like most about Schwab’s stories is that every character feels relevant and feels fully developed. Vicious is a character-driven superhero story about that sometimes very fine line between good and evil and the complexities that each character faces. With obsession driving them both, the hero does some really terrible things and the villain does some really wonderful things. By the end of the book, we’re left with a lot to think about. In the face of adversity, ignorance, and power, who defines what is good and what isn’t?

BOOK REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

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BOOK REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne LeonardTitle: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard
Published by Penguin
Published: December 30th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 384
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

A prince with a quest, a beautiful commoner with mysterious powers, and dragons who demand to be freed—at any cost. Filled with the potent mix of the supernatural and romance that made A Discovery of Witches a runaway success, Moth and Spark introduces readers to a vibrant world—and a love story they won’t soon forget.

Prince Corin has been chosen to free the dragons from their bondage to the power Mycenean Empire, but dragons aren’t big on directions. They have given him some of their power, but none of their knowledge. No one, not the dragons nor their riders, is even sure what keeps the dragons in the Empire’s control. Tam, sensible daughter of a well-respected doctor, had no idea before she arrived in Caithenor that she is a Seer, gifted with visions. When the two run into each other (quite literally) in the library, sparks fly and Corin impulsively asks Tam to dinner. But it’s not all happily ever after. Never mind that the prince isn’t allowed to marry a commoner: war is coming. Torn between his quest to free the dragons and his duty to his country, Tam and Corin must both figure out how to master their powers in order to save Caithen. With a little help from a village of secret wizards and rogue dragonrider, they just might pull it off.

He burned for her, and she for him, and it was as unstoppable as rain in spring.

I expected more dragons. There weren’t enough dragons. As described in the back cover summary, Prince Corin is summoned and entrusted to free the dragons from a powerful neighboring country. He meets a young woman, Tam, who discovers her ability to see beyond while staying with the court at the royal castle. Ok, that seems perfectly fantasy enough. Some snippets from reviews in the first few pages also name the styles of Jane Austen’s novels and William Golding’s The Princess Bride. Awesome, right? Because I do enjoy those.

Ehhh. I wish this novel had some more advertising about the romance. It’s definitely a fantasy romance. It’s got fantastical elements in it, but it’s mostly about the instant romance between Corin and Tam. I don’t find instant romances in books all that believable, and I find it difficult to believe those romances will last longer than the span of time in whatever book in which it happens. With the references to dragons and politics, I was hoping for more of that. Not so dramatic as A Song of Ice and Fire, but something with a little more heft at least. Moth and Spark reads like endless court gossip.

However, once I realized I was in for a romance, it ended up being a pretty decent standalone novel. It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s an escape from everything else, which is what some novels are excellent for. I think I liked it more for it being a standalone because I don’t think I’d read the rest in the series just because it isn’t something I expected. Anne Leonard’s a solid writer, and she can capture dialogue and romance well without it being too cheesy (although I will admit there are several moments of cheese that I rolled my eyes at). I just wanted more dragons, because I thought her dragon construction was incredibly interesting!